The Torah devotes no less than 115 pesukim (Tazria-Metzora) to the various forms of tzaraas and their purification process. Clearly the lengthy focus on tzaraas indicates the significance the Torah extends to the precursor of tzaraas: lashon hora, evil/slanderous speech. The motzi shem ra, individual who uses his tongue to propagate negative information about a fellow Jew, is the one who becomes the tzaraas victim. Thus, the parshiyos dealing with the tzaraas plagues indicate the severity of lashon hora. Interestingly, the only allusion in the Torah that connects tzaraas with lashon hora is in Devarim 24:8,9 when the Torah admonishes us to beware of a tzaraas. This pasuk is juxtaposed upon the stipulation to remember what happened to Miriam HaNeviah when she criticized her brother, Moshe Rabbeinu. This was not a public slander; rather, Miriam’s concern over Moshe’s marriage, which she privately intimated to none other than her other brother, Aharon HaKohen. Yet, this became the classic example of lashon hora in the Torah.
The Rishonim debate whether the adjuration to remember what happened to Miriam is, in fact, a mitzvah or just that, an eitzah tovah, sound piece of good advice, to protect oneself from falling into the abyss of lashon hora. Rashi views the remembrance as a warning about what can happen if we are not careful. If it could happen to Miriam HaNeviah, what can we say? Ramban considers it to be a mitzvah similar to remembering Shabbos and remembering to obliterate Amalek’s name. It is a mitzvah that Hashem gave us as a tool in our battle against the scourge of evil speech. Ramban offers his extensive commentary, concluding by asking how one can surmise that a sin which is equal to murder (because one can kill with a slanderous tongue. This is why it is called character “assassination”) should not have a prohibitive mitzvah (lo saaseh) or negative derivative from a positive mitzvah (laav ha’bah michlal asei) to underscore its interdiction.
Concerning Ramban’s question as to why there is no explicit prohibition (lo saaseh) banning one from speaking lashon hora, Horav Aryeh Leib Heyman, zl, explains that other prohibitions similarly are not distinctly expressed in the Torah. As to why lashon hora in particular, he suggests that the Satan is able to prosecute us only when we transgress an explicit mitzvah in the Torah. The sin of lashon hora is so rampant, touching almost everyone, that Hashem took pity and did not record it definitively in the Torah – to sort of diminish the prohibition and undermine Satan’s prosecutorial power.
As an aside, Rav Heyman wonders what provoked Miriam to speak against /question Moshe’s behavior vis-à-vis his wife. It is not as if she was speaking about a regular member of the Jewish community. Moshe was its quintessential leader, a man who had spent forty days and nights in Heaven, who regularly spoke with Hashem. Clearly, to question him and express negative feelings concerning his behavior took extraordinary intrepidity, a gutsiness which one would not expect from Miriam.
Rav Heyman explains that the situation reverts to eighty years earlier when Amram, the leader of the Jewish People in Egypt, separated from his wife, Yocheved, as a preemptive move, so that others would follow his example. He conjectured – no wife – no children – no children – no Jewish babies for Pharaoh’s guards to drown. Miriam was then a young girl of six years old, who stood up to her father with the indictment that his decree was more unjust than Pharaoh’s, whose decree was only against the Jewish boys. Amram’s decree would negate the possibility of having children – period – no boys – no girls. Amram shared his daughter’s views with the Sanhedrin who agreed, and everyone returned to their respective wives.
Fast forward eighty years, and Miriam observes what she feels is another injustice – this time perpetrated by her distinguished brother – who was now Klal Yisrael’s leader. Miriam respected leadership, but when she felt that leadership had rendered an unsound decision, she spoke up. This time, however, she erred. Her courage was derived from an incident that had taken place eighty years earlier. Things had changed, and the decisions which the leadership rendered were different. What was then righteous indignation was today lashon hora. Moshe was not Amram, and Miriam was no longer a young girl. Today she was a Neviyah. People had changed, and so had expectations.